Bellingham audience told glaciers, oysters show climate change impacts

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 21, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Northwest glaciers are shrinking and marine life is struggling as climate change makes itself felt on land and sea.

That was the message that more than 200 members of Bellingham City Club heard Wednesday, Nov. 20, from glacier scientist Michele Koppes and Taylor Shellfish Farms public policy manager Bill Dewey.

Koppes is assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in landscapes of climate change at the University of British Columbia. She told her audience that about one-sixth of the world's population gets at least some of its drinking water from glaciers and snowpack, which she called "frozen warehouses of fresh water."

That includes Bellingham and much of Whatcom County - anyone who gets water from the glacier-fed Nooksack River. But here and almost everywhere else in the world, the mountain snow accumulations that feed the glaciers are dwindling as average global temperatures creep upward.

As of now, the approximately 700 glaciers in the North Cascade Mountains hold as much fresh water as all the region's rivers and lakes combined, but that total keeps dropping. In many areas of the North Cascades, the amount of water stored in mountain snow is down 45 to 60 percent since 1950 based on April measurements, Koppes said.

The shrinkage of Cascade glaciers seems to be accelerating: Koppes said the glaciers on Mount Baker, which feed both the Nooksack and Skagit rivers, have lost 20 percent of their volume since 1990.

In the Nooksack, the result is a measurable loss of summer stream flow that is expected to get worse as average temperatures keep trending up in the decades ahead. And the uptrend is expected to accelerate in the 21st century, Koppes noted.

Local Indian tribes, farmers, and cities already are unable to agree on how to allocate the Nooksack's available water flow in the summer. Tribes insist on enough water to support their treaty-guaranteed salmon fisheries. Berry farmers rely on river water to bolster bumper crops. Lynden and Bellingham will need more water as their populations grow.

A more immediate problem: Koppes said the retreat of glaciers in the upper Nooksack watershed is increasing the likelihood of landslides that can muddy the water, harming fish and municipal water systems. That's what happened on May 31, 2013, along the Middle Fork of the river below the retreating Deming Glacier.

Koppes said the sediment from that event was visible all the way down the river and out into Bellingham Bay.

In a later interview, Assistant Bellingham Public Works Director Jon Hutchings said the city plans to install a turbidity monitor on the Middle Fork, upstream from the city's water intake, to provide an early warning to shut down that intake quickly when the next landslide occurs. Hutchings said the May event did not cause any disruptions.

Climate change is stressing glaciated areas all over the world - the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes.

"It's not just happening here," Koppes said. "It's happening all over the world."

Dewey of Taylor Shellfish explained how warming oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide, increasing their acidity and making it more difficult for oysters, clams and other sea creatures to build their shells.

"We're one of the first industries in the world that's actually seen the effects of ocean acidification," Dewey said.

Shellfish growers first started to notice losses in their cultivated oyster seed in 2005 and 2006. Dewey said the industry spent a lot of time and money to stamp out a bacterial strain that was believed to be the culprit. But the oyster seed kept dying.

A few years later, when scientists identified the real trouble - ocean acidification from climate change - oyster growers realized they had a tougher problem on their hands.

"It's been a combination of panic and adaptation," Dewey said.

Taylor has moved much of its seed production to Hawaii, where the wind and current conditions are different and acidification is not yet at critical levels for shell formation. Some seed production still occurs in Washington state, and growers have learned to monitor acid levels and buffer the water in seed-growing tanks as necessary, Dewey said.

That leads Dewey to wonder how much damage is being done to all kinds of marine life in the natural environment, where nobody is adding antacid to the water.

"Oysters are fortunate in that people like to eat them and they have spokesmen like me," Dewey said.

Other sea creatures that form part of a food chain supporting salmon and other species are likely to be dwindling unnoticed by anyone but marine biologists, Dewey said.

"The ocean is going to be dramatically different in our lifetime," Dewey said. "The rate of change is incredible, what the ocean is experiencing right now. ... We're tipping that so quickly that species are not having time to evolve."

When an audience member asked for their opinions about the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier proposed at Cherry Point, both Koppes and Dewey said their experiences make them opponents of any increase in global coal consumption.

Besides adding to the global oversupply of carbon dioxide, coal burning in Asia also deposits soot on Northwest glaciers that speeds up melting even more, Koppes said.

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Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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